Stings so good

Sure, Stare at Cherry Blossoms—But It’s Also Nettle Season!

The prolific, weedy plant is a great foraging entry point. Also, here's a recipe.

By Stefan Milne April 12, 2021

A nettle I discovered (wink wink) somewhere near here. 

Image: Stefan Milne

Though the Seattle area abounds with wild edible things, there aren’t a whole lot that I count on to safely, reliably, and more or less legally find within city limits. Blackberries and a smattering of greens (dandelion, bittercress) belong on that list. So do nettles, which are, as it happens, among the easiest and safest things to forage yourself. You can start finding them as early as January some years, but generally when the cherry blossoms start the nettles also take off.

If you’ve never foraged anything before, you can still spot a nettle and forage (or buy them at a farmers market for $7 a pound). I find mine at a certain large park, where they grow with weedy abundance along the sides of the trails and where it’s not exactly legal to forage them, though neither is taking blackberries. I've seen the sprouting in yards and along sidewalks. They also grow all over in the lower forests around Seattle, so they’re an easy grab on a hike. And they generally grow right off the trail, so they're noninvasive to gather. 

Nothing else around here looks much like these verdant, hairy beauties. 

Image: Stefan Milne

The excellent thing about nettles is that nothing around here looks quite like them—just see some pictures—so they’re easy to discern from other plants in a forest. And if you’re ever unsure if what you’re gathering is a nettle or not, just touch them with your bare skin. That precise burn, and those small hives, tell you you’re right. Because of this burn you’ll want to wear thick gloves (dish gloves work well), and snip off the tops somewhere below the third layer of leaves with sheers. Put the tips in a bag.

When you get them home, bring a large pot of water to a boil. A couple handfuls at a time, blanch the nettles for a minute in the boiling water (this deactivates the stinging). Take them out with tongs or a slotted spoon and let them cool. Nettles basically taste like wild spinach—but a bit more herbal, spicy, woodsy. You can use them wherever you would cooked spinach. Pesto is the go-to for most people, but since nettles have way less flavor than fresh basil, I’d recommend a different sort of sauce. Here’s what I do. 

Nettle Sauce

  • ½ pound nettles
  • 1 tin anchovies in oil
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • plenty of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • red pepper flakes
  • salt
  • black pepper 
  1. In a small pan, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Sweat the shallot until it's translucent. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, but not browned.
  2. Roughly chop the blanched nettles. In a food processor or blender, combine the nettles, anchovies (and their oil), garlic-shallot mixture, and the lemon zest (not the juice). Add enough olive oil that this will all move. Blend on medium to low until you have a smooth sauce, adding as much olive oil as you need to achieve this. Season assertively with salt and pepper.
  3. Before serving add the lemon juice (you can add this whenever you like, but if you let it sit, it’ll lend your pretty green sauce a hideous brown hue and the flavor will change eventually).
  4. This makes a nice pasta sauce, especially with some grated hard cheese. You can also use it as the base for a piece of fish, or sauce some cooked farro or white beans with it. It’s highly flexible. I’ve blended in hazelnuts and sunflower seeds, swapped the anchovies with fish sauce, or done butter instead of olive oil.
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